The Anchorage Assembly on Tuesday unanimously voted to direct $220,000 to help alleviate escalating public health and safety issues in and around large homeless encampments in North Anchorage, Midtown and other areas of the city.
Assembly member Felix Rivera, who proposed the measure, said the money will go toward several efforts: increasing police presence at camps, improving lighting in dark areas, site cleanup, and bolstering health safety measures like city-provided water, port-a-potties and hand-washing stations. It could also help with transitioning people from encampments to shelter, he said. Additionally, the city should staff a liaison to get an “on the ground” understanding of what the needs are at encampments, he said.
The money will be directed to the municipal police, health, and parks departments. It should cover the 40 or so days remaining until the city’s emergency winter shelter operations are expected to begin around Oct. 15, Rivera said.
Police efforts will be focused particularly on the Third Avenue encampment at Ingra and Gambell streets in North Anchorage. Homeless residents, nearby business owners and service providers have spoken out about rampant crime in the neighborhood and predation on vulnerable people in the camp, including gun violence, assaults, extortion, theft and drug dealing.
The area has become a “hotbed of criminal activity,” Assembly member Kevin Cross said.
“What is happening — and the people that are being victimized down there — should not be happening on our watch,” Cross said. “And so I support this funding primarily to restore law and order, because there is a criminal element that is seizing upon the unfortunate ... and that is completely unacceptable.”
The city will also focus mitigation efforts on the extensive Midtown encampment in the Cuddy Park area, where people are especially concerned about public health issues such as restrooms and hand washing stations, Rivera said.
The measure as initially proposed would have directed $100,000 to the mitigation efforts. But members approved an additional $120,000 after police and parks and recreation department leaders told them that, due to staffing issues, the city had money left over from efforts earlier this year to assuage similar issues near the city’s former mass winter homeless shelter in Sullivan Arena.
The staffing issues largely remain, police and parks and recreation leaders told Assembly members Tuesday.
“Having 24/7 coverage of police presence in some of these camps is not sustainable,” Anchorage Police Department Deputy Chief Sean Case told members Tuesday.
The police department is experiencing a continued “staffing drought,” and a further increase in overtime puts more stress on police officers, Case said.
However, a four-person dedicated detail at the encampments for 40 hours per week in the short term is possible, he said. Also, a dedicated team will also be more effective than various police officers coming and going at the camps on overtime shifts, he said. The department is also considering adding a detective as a point of contact for cases, Case said.
Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness’ executive director, Meg Zaletel — who is also a Midtown Assembly member — told the Assembly on Tuesday that the coalition supports and will collaborate with the added police presence at the Third Avenue encampment. (Zaletel did not participate in the vote and spoke about the measure in her role as executive director.)
That support for police presence during outreach events is unusual.
“Usually our first, knee-jerk reaction is, ‘Oh no — it’s going to chill the response to our outreach efforts,’ ” Zaletel said.
A primary goal of outreach is to build relationships and trust with people experiencing homelessness, with the goal of eventually getting them into housing or other services — and for many who are homeless, law enforcement can be detrimental in trust-building, especially for those who have undergone serious traumas.
The coalition’s homelessness outreach team is contracted through the city and coordinates resources to provide food, basic medical care and harm reduction kits during weekly popups around the city. But it’s no longer safe for outreach staff to go into the Third Avenue encampment, Zaletel said.
“What we’re hearing and what we’re witnessing inside the camps are things beyond our control,” she said. “... So we need that help as well.”
The coalition is also looking to bring in extra resources like crisis counselors to help counterbalance the different approach, she said.
Assembly Chair Christopher Constant said at the next Assembly meeting, on Sept. 12, members will consider further action on mitigation and the city’s emergency winter homeless shelter plans.